Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course

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#Philosophy12 in 2016: Introductory Readings, Documents of Learning, What is Philosophy?

Shuttleworth Bight

Just over a week into our course, Philosophy 12 moves into the digital today, with almost sixty new authors joining the site authorship and two new assignments beginning to take shape over the next few days. By the end of the week, our philosophers will be publishing their first Documents of Learning; as we look ahead at next week, the first signposts in our journeys toward developing personal definitions of “philosophy” itself in presentations to be delivered in class as well as posted to the blog.

In the meantime, I encourage new students to get to know this space: explore the subject categories, tags, and what past philosophy 12’ers have shared here. The site’s content runs from reflections, presentations, and critical analysis, to interesting videos people have made or found, archives of class discussions, and commentary offered by inquisitive minds beyond our school community.

To the first readings we have encountered this semester, I will add these past articles and essays with the hope that they help you further your thinking toward our first two assignments:

“Philosophy matters, simply, because the answers to philosophical questions matter. Not only is it a matter of life and death, but a matter of, to name a few examples, the nature of law, the role of language, where morality comes from, whether there is a God, whether there is a self and what constitutes our identity, and what beauty is. What makes these questions important is not only that they help societies to function (although they certainly do), but that they reflect something deeply fundamental about human beings: that we are physical creatures, but our consciousness is not restricted to physical matters. Indeed, philosophy is both reflective and perfective of human nature.”

“In most cases, obscurity is a defect, not a virtue, and undue concern with interpretation puts the focus on people rather than problems. It is not easy to write clearly, especially on philosophical topics, and it is risky. Clear writers stand naked before their critics, with all their argumentative blemishes visible; but they are braver, more honest and more respectful of the true aims of intellectual enquiry than ones who shroud themselves in obscurity.”

“The examined life does not need to be the life of the sage, removed from society in order to evaluate it impartially. In fact, in order for it to serve in guiding the lived experience of individuals, it is actually a deeply practical enterprise. Another Greek philosopher, Epicurus, believed that a philosophy that did not assist a person in living a flourishing life was akin to medicine that did not heal the body: it was pointless. This is a little extreme: in some fields such as metaphysics the practical implications may not be immediately evident and it would be foolish to expect them to be, but even in these cases, the knowledge obtained by such reflections can be, and should be, shared because knowledge itself can be a constitutive element of the good life.”

 

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Is great philosophy, by its nature, difficult and obscure?

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A good question posed on the always-provocative site Aeon:

To some degree, all texts need interpretation. Working out what people mean isn’t simply a matter of decoding their words, but speculating about their mental states. The same words could express quite different thoughts, and the reader has to decide between the interpretations. But it doesn’t follow that all texts are equally hard to interpret. Some interpretations might be more psychologically plausible than others, and a writer can narrow the range of possible interpretations. Why should philosophy need more interpretation than other texts?

As we look ahead at some of our more challenging units – thinking specifically of Metaphysics and Epistemology – the article may help frame the difficulty of engaging these more opaque topics, not in as much as it makes the unclear clear, but hopefully for offering the rationale and some inspiration to dig deeper when the going gets tough:

…some great philosophy is creative in a way that is incompatible with clarity. It doesn’t seek to construct precise theories; rather, it reaches out to unmapped areas of thought, where we do not yet know what techniques to employ, what concepts to use, or even what questions to ask. It is more like artthan science, and it makes its own rules. It is not that such work is defective by being ambiguous; it is trying to do something that cannot be done clearly, and its aim is precisely to stimulate diverse interpretations.

 

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Stephen Downes’ Theory of Epistemology

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We are greatly fortunate to have a mind like Stephen Downes‘ join us from time to time in Philosophy 12 to offer comments, feedback and dialogue with our for-credit participants. Occasionally, he offers responses to assignments, as in the case of this semester’s mid-term assignment, where he proposes the following theory of epistemology:

Most theories of knowledge depict knowledge as a type of belief. The idea, for example, of knowledge as ‘justified true belief’ dates back to Plato, who in Theaetetus argued that having a ‘true opinion’ about something is insufficient to say that we know about something.

In my view, knowledge isn’t a type of belief or opinion at all, and knowledge isn’t the sort of thing that needs to be justified at all. Instead, knowledge is a type of perception, which we call ‘recognition’, and knowledge serves as the justification for other things, including opinions and beliefs.

You can read the rest of Stephen’s theory of epistemology here. But other philosophers writing their own Theories of Knowledge midterms this week may also find useful reading from an older piece of his writing, How to Write Articles Quickly and Expertly

From time to time people express amazement at how I can get so much done. I, of course, aware of the many hours I have idled away doing nothing, demur. It feels like nothing special; I don’t work harder, really, than most people. Nonetheless, these people do have a point. I am, in fact, a fairly prolific writer.

Part of it is tenacity. For example, I am writing this item as I wait for the internet to start working again in the Joburg airport departures area. But part of it is a simple strategy for writing you essays and articles quickly and expertly, a strategy that allows you to plan your entire essay as you write it, and thus to allow you to make your first draft your final draft. This article describes that strategy.

Begin by writing – in your head, at least – your second paragraph (that would be the one you just read, above). Your second paragraph will tell people what your essay says. Some people write abstracts or executive summaries in order to accomplish this task. But you don’t need to do this. You are stating your entire essay or article in one paragraph. If you were writing a news article, you would call this paragraph the ‘lede’. A person could read just the one paragraph and know what you had to say.

But how do you write this paragraph? Reporters will tell you that writing the lede is the hardest part of writing an article. Because if you don’t know what the story is, you cannot write it in a single paragraph. A reporter will sift through the different ways of writing the story – the different angles – and find a way to tell it. You, because you are writing an article or essay, have more options.

 

 
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